Deliverance Page 68

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“I imagine they are.” His voice is still gentle, and it rubs against my anger like sandpaper. “But to be clear, I offered condolences for your father. I judged him based on the information I had once the tech went missing, and I was wrong. He was a good man. I did not, however, offer condolences for anyone else who died. Nor will I. Their deaths are just.”

I open my mouth, but I can’t seem to find the air to speak. My heart pounds against my skin, a hammer that wants to crush me from the inside out. I see Sylph’s face. Donny’s neck. I see the streets of Baalboden wreathed with flames while her people screamed for help that wasn’t coming.

Rowan leans forward. “You see, your father made the right decision. But you didn’t, did you?” He sounds like he expects me to confess my wrongdoing and ask for mercy. “And neither did your leader, Commander Chase.”

“He isn’t my leader.” I grip the sides of the chair so hard my hands ache.

“Do you know why Baalboden had to burn? Why your friends had to die?”

“Because Ian is sick. Because you’re sick—”

“Because justice requires sacrifice.”

I lunge to my feet, knocking my tea over and sending the liquid splashing across the table. “You sacrificed innocent people!”

He stands, and suddenly he doesn’t look so short anymore. “I sacrificed what mattered to Commander Chase. He thought he could steal from me. Subvert my technology for his own uses. Turn my citizens against me. A theft like that requires a strong response. He wanted to become the most powerful man in the world. I broke the seat of his power.” His eyes bore into mine. “It was just.”

“Nothing about you is just.” I ball my hands into fists. “You destroy lives because your pride is wounded. That makes you a poor leader and an even poorer man. You don’t care if you hurt those who are loyal to you or those who are loyal to someone else, as long as you get to say that you made your point.”

“Loyalty is something a leader earns.” His voice is still soft, but there’s a thread of steel in it now. “My people are loyal to me for a reason.”

“Yes, because if they aren’t, you have them whip their family members to death.”

“Shut your mouth!” Ian grabs my injured arm and spins me toward my chair. I plant my back foot and plow my left arm into his face as I turn. My momentum carries me into him, and we topple over backward, sending his chair skidding across the floor.

Ian scissor-kicks, wraps his arms around my head, and flips me onto my back. I punch as hard as I can with my left hand, aiming for his internal organs and his windpipe, but I’m not doing very much damage. Ian, however, is pounding his fists against my body like he thinks if he hits me hard enough, everything that haunts him will just disappear.

Someone is yelling for Ian to stop, but he doesn’t listen. He drives his fist into my stomach, and I choke. I can’t draw in another breath. I go limp as if I’ve been knocked out, and absorb another two punches before Samuel wraps his arms around Ian’s chest and begins hauling him off me.

I wait until Ian is halfway between kneeling and standing and then draw my knee to my chest and slam my boot into his crotch. He shrieks in agony and falls to his knees when Samuel finishes pulling him away from me.

Coughing and gasping, I roll to my side and struggle to take a full breath. A shadow falls over my face, and then James Rowan crouches beside me. He reaches a hand out as if to touch me, and I wheeze, “Don’t you dare.”

His smile is a grim tightening of his lips. “I dare a great many things. Some of which you don’t approve of.”

“You mean like having Ian kill his father in the name of justice and then sending him on a mission to kill hundreds of others as well? You’re right. I don’t approve. Do you have any idea what you’ve done to him?”

He cocks his head and studies me. “Interesting. I detect a note of sympathy for the boy you seem to want to punish.”

“Not sympathy. Understanding.” Behind me I can hear Ian struggling to breathe past the pain I dealt him. I should feel satisfaction at giving him an ounce of the agony he gave to me, but I don’t.

“Understanding.” That awful sad little smile is back.

“Yes. I understand how living under your rules could twist a person into the kind of sick monster Ian has become.”

“Come with me. I want to show you something.” He extends his hand as if to help me up.

“Do I have a choice?”

“There’s always a choice. Haven’t you learned that yet? You can choose to defy me and take the consequences. Or you can choose to be civil and get up to look at my garden with me.”

How about if I choose to pretend to admire your garden while I plot the best way to defy you? I think as I ignore his hand and climb to my feet on my own. He leads me to the bank of windows and gestures toward the garden beyond. The blooming bushes, trees, and flower beds are bathed in golden light from the oil lamps that surround the garden and cut through it along a narrow cobblestone path.

“What do you see?” he asks.

I roll my eyes. “Is that a trick question?”

“Humor me.”

“Sure. Humor the man who destroyed my life. Sounds fun.”

He sighs as if my insolence is another disappointment, and then points past a row of rosebushes. “Do you see that tree?”

I shake my head. “There isn’t one.”

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